Old/New Albums: Jackson C. Frank’s Self-Titled

jacksoncfrankThe second entry in my Old/New Albums series is the only album recorded by Jackson C. Frank. Frank recorded his self-titled debut in 1965, and viewed in the context of his life, it is one hell of a bleak listen. So some quick backstory.

When he was a child, there was a furnace explosion at his elementary school that killed several children and resulted in severe burns for Frank himself. It was during his hospital recovery that he began playing the guitar to cope with the trauma. After he came of legal age, he was awarded a large sum of insurance money and he used it to travel to England, where he began playing folk clubs and recorded his debut album. He was significantly shy and stories tell of his wanting to be shielded from everyone else in the studio during recording. Not sure how he was able to play live shows, but this is how the story goes. After the album was recorded and released, he suffered a bout of writer’s block and his mental health started to deteriorate. He ran out of insurance money and went back to the United States, ended up marrying and having a son, who then died of cystic fibrosis. By the early ’70s he was asking his friends for aid, and his album was rereleased, though again, to no great fanfare.

By the ’80s, he had been in and out of various mental institutions due to severe depression. In the ’90s, a fan by the name of Jim Abbott discovered him homeless on the streets of New York, with hardly a thing to his name. Physically and mentally, he was a radically different person than the one who released his album back in ’65. As if this wasn’t enough, in a random freak event, Frank was rendered blind after he was hit in the eye by a pellet gun, shot by a young kid shooting indiscriminately at people on the street. He died in 1999 of pneumonia and cardiac arrest.

Pretty depressing life. And it shows 100% in his music. As I said before, this album is a bleak affair. The lead off song is called “Blues Runs The Game” and Frank makes it clear he truly believes that. These are all songs about depression, heartbreak, loneliness. Frank sings about nothing happy. Here’s a smattering of lyrics from around the album:

When I’m not drinking, baby / you are on my mind / when I’m not sleeping, honey / when I ain’t sleeping, Mama / when I’m not sleeping, you know you’ll find me crying

I want to be alone / I need to touch each stone / face the grave that I have grown / I want to be alone

I haven’t any picture to set before my eyes / Nothing to blame when the blues start to rise / Just the memory of laughter and the living out of lies / And if I could change my ways babe, you’d never have said goodbye

Cheery. It’s depressing to think this album was so foretellingly autobiographical and he had no idea. He was singing what he was experiencing but also what he would experience to a much greater degree, further on down his road.

Musically, this album fits right into the mid-’60s folk scene. You’ve got serious echos of Simon & Garfunkel with just a hint of Bob Dylan’s guitar work (Paul Simon actually produced this album, with pal Art Garfunkel hanging around during the recording), but even more prominently, Frank sounds like a clearer-voiced Nick Drake. What I enjoy of that ’60s folk sound isn’t totally present here however, and so I don’t completely connect with this album. It’s very sparse, with little more than Frank’s acoustic guitar providing the sole instrumentation. And on top of that, there is hardly any vocal range. The album opener and album closer start exactly the same way. Because of that, the album really quickly begins to sonically mull together to me. I haven’t skipped around once on this album because it all sounds alike.

So clearly I’m not in love with this album. I’m already looking forward to moving on from it. If you prefer Simon & Garfunkel over Paul Simon’s solo stuff (especially the earliest S&G work), than you’d be the most likely candidate to find some enjoyment in this album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. “You Never Wanted Me”
  2. “Just Like Anything”
  3. “Blues Run The Game”

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